Tuesday, May 14, 2013

The Seeds of the Benghazi Talking Points

    Last week, the Benghazi talking points took center stage in the ongoing investigation of the 9/11 anniversary attacks in Libya.  Jay Carney came under intense questioning at Friday's White House press briefing as he struggled to justify the dozen iterations of talking points before Susan Rice used the final version for her now-infamous five Sunday talk show appearances on September 16, 2012.  However, a background briefing by the State Department four days before Rice's appearances provides the earliest extended look at the information used to prepare those talking points.
    On September 12, in the evening following the attacks, three unnamed Senior Administration* officials briefed journalists via teleconference on the rapidly developing story.  Although President Obama and Secretary of State Clinton had already made some public statements, this briefing contained far more detail than any previous remarks.  As the teleconference commenced, the most striking part about it was is the complete absence of any mention of "protests" or "demonstrations":
So let me give you a little bit of the chronology to the best of our knowledge. Again, the times are likely to change as it becomes a little bit more precise, but this is how we’ve been able to reconstruct what we have from yesterday.
At approximately 4 p.m. Eastern Daylight Time yesterday, which was about 10 p.m. in Libya, the compound where our office is in Benghazi began taking fire from unidentified Libyan extremists. By about 4:15, the attackers gained access to the compound and began firing into the main building, setting it on fire...
     Later in the briefing, a journalist asks a question about protests [emphasis added]:
QUESTION: ...[T]he larger question is, you didn’t talk at all about the protests. You started your timeline with that the firing began. Can you talk about the timeline of when the protests started, how that fit in with it, and your sense of whether or not the protestors and the assailants were the same?...
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL ONE: ...With regard to the protests – I assume you’re not talking about protests in Cairo, are you? You’re talking about protests in Benghazi?... We frankly don’t have a full picture of what may have been going on outside of the compound walls before the firing began. So I really just don’t have any specifics on that at the moment. I apologize.
    It is apparent that the idea of protests at Benghazi had not yet even entered into the discussion at the State Department.  The official in fact clarifies that the questioner is not referring to the protests outside the Cairo Embassy which of course had dominated the news the previous day.  Another journalist raised the Cairo protests again later in the briefing:
QUESTION: ...Do you believe that this attack was in any way related to the incident in Cairo? You suggested this attack in Benghazi was more complex; so is it safe to rule out that this was a reaction to the inflammatory internet video?

SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL ONE: ...With regard to whether there is any connection between this internet activity and this extremist attack in Benghazi, frankly, we just don’t know. We’re not going to know until we have a chance to investigate. And I’m sorry that it is frustrating for you that so many of our answers are “We don’t know,” but they are truthful in that.
    Again, when given the opportunity to connect the Cairo protests with Benghazi and the anti-Muhammad video, the State Department official referred to the lack of "any connection between this internet activity and this extremist attack in Benghazi," not "the protests in Benghazi."  This complete absence of "protests" or "demonstrations" in the State Department's discussion of Benghazi makes the revision in the talking points (via Foreign Policy) changing "attacks" in the first version to "demonstrations" in the third version even more curious.
    A second point of contention regarding the talking point revisions relates to the spontaneous versus planned nature of the attacks and the participation of al-Qaeda or al-Qaeda affiliates.  Andrea Mitchell raised this question early in the briefing:
QUESTION: ...there’s a lot of reporting now on this being linked to a terror attack, an organized terror attack – possibly al-Qaida sympathetic or al-Qaida linked. Can you speak to that?
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL ONE: ... Frankly, we are not in a position to speak any further to the perpetrators of this attack. It was clearly a complex attack. We’re going to have to do a full investigation. We are committed to working with the Libyans both on the investigation and to ensure that we bring the perpetrators to justice. The FBI is already committed to assisting in that, but I just – we’re – it’s just too early to speak to who they were and if they might have been otherwise affiliated beyond Libya.
    As the administration has stressed in defense of the early statements, the official declined to confirm or deny the suspected participation of al-Qaeda groups.  In fact, Mitchell's question contains the only reference to al-Qaeda or "terror" in the entire briefing, and yet the first version of the talking points prepared by the CIA included multiple references to al-Qaeda and its affiliates.  This is perhaps an early indication of the differences between the State Department and the CIA that would eventually lead to the twelve revisions in the following days.
    Regardless, the State Department official did note that "[i]t was clearly a complex attack."  In fact, "attack" or "attackers" is used twelve times throughout the briefing.  By contrast, in reference to Benghazi, "protest", "demonstration", and "spontaneous" are not used at all.
    A third and final point raised over the talking point revisions was the removal of references to prior attacks in Libya in the months leading up to September 11.  A questioner raised the issue of prior security incidents at the briefing:
QUESTION: ...Listen, there’ve been troubles in Benghazi for some time now. I understand the Consulate was attacked or bombed two, three months ago. The British have put out threat warnings about Benghazi. Was there any consideration before the attack yesterday of beefing up security there? 
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL ONE: Well, again, I’m not going to get into the specifics of how we were postured in terms of security at our mission in Benghazi beyond what I said. So – because we don’t ever talk about the details of those kinds of things.
What I would say, though, is that we did, as we did in missions around the world, review the security there in the context of preparing for the anniversary of September 11th. And at that point, there was no information and there were no threat streams to indicate that we were insufficiently postured.
    Although the official stated that "we did, as we did in missions around the world, review the security there in the context of preparing for the anniversary of September 11th," an overview of State Department warnings and alerts shows a clear drop off between 2011 and 2012 in 9/11 anniversary warnings.
    After the background briefing on September 12 and over the next three days, the information the administration had presented in this briefing was combined with new information that continued to be gathered by intelligence and other agencies and ultimately led to the talking points used by Susan Rice.  It was also during this time, as reported this week by The Weekly Standard, that the Overseas Security Advisory Council withdrew a report that had been issued on September 6, five days before the attack, entitled "Terrorism and Important Dates."  The report downplayed the likelihood of a 9/11 anniversary-date attack by al-Qaeda or other terror groups, noting that concerns over such attacks are often due to "increased media attention to the issue."  A State Department official contacted via email said the report was withdrawn because "the content had expired," and did not respond to requests for further clarification.
    The removal of references to prior security incidents from the talking points and the withdrawal of the Terrorism and Important Dates report suggests that the administration was not inclined to draw attention to its pre-Benghazi posture on diplomatic security and preparedness.  Indeed, State Department spokesperson Victoria Nuland wrote in an email, such reminders "could be abused by members [of Congress] to beat up the State Department for not paying attention to warnings, so why would we want to feed that either?"
    Clearly the information during the first few days and even weeks after the Benghazi attacks was incomplete and even contradictory.  But in retrospect, it is clear that the Obama administration understood almost from the beginning the politically vulnerable position it was in due to its actions (and inaction) before, during, and as soon became apparent, after the attacks.  The clear frustration of the White House press corps during Friday's press briefing with Jay Carney may be another sign that the concerns over the last eight months of mainly conservatives and Republicans are beginning to spread.  Even Democrats at the Benghazi congressional hearings on Wednesday were openly calling for additional hearings to resolve the many remaining unanswered questions of Benghazi and the deaths of four Americans.  The coming weeks and months will be a strong test of the sincerity of an administration that has claimed on many occasions to be the most transparent in history.  The continuing obfuscation on Benghazi by administration officials up to and including the president is casting further doubt on that claim.

*Post originally said "State Department"

Note: A version of this article first appeared at The Weekly Standard.

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